Analysis: IDF backs peace talks with Syria, but questions of mutual sincerity remain

Analysis IDF backs peac

Whether the peace signals Israel has been sending to Syria over the past week are genuine or a ploy to pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sit down at the negotiating table, one thing is for sure: they have the full backing of IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Since taking up his post almost three years ago, Ashkenazi has been a proponent of peace talks with Syria. He silently backed the last government's indirect peace talks with the Syrians in Turkey and has said on more than one occasion that in his opinion, a peace treaty with Syria could have a positive ripple effect through the region and help isolate Iran and stabilize Lebanon. This is not a new opinion for the chief of staff. In 2000, as head of the IDF's Northern Command during the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, Ashkenazi was reportedly critical of then-prime minister Ehud Barak's decision to carry out the move without coordinating it with Syria. He was also a member of the Israeli delegation to peace talks with Syria in Shepherdstown, Virginia that same year. While the price for peace is largely believed to include a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Ashkenazi has said privately that due to Syria's deteriorating economic situation, billions of dollars in aid from Europe and the United States could also be instrumental in pushing President Bashar Assad back to the West. The objective behind the desire to make peace with Syria has changed over the past 20 to 30 years and is no longer just about preventing war with Israel's neighbor to the North. After all, many anti-withdrawal activists argue that Israel's border with Syria is its most calm even without peace and therefore ask why anyone should change something that is working. On the other hand, Ashkenazi, together with Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, believes that Israel has much more to gain by making peace with Syria, primarily the isolation of Iran by breaking the Damascus-Teheran alliance, a definite condition for peace for any Israeli government. Israel would also demand that Syria stop all support to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Western countries involved in the talks would also likely demand that Syria stop meddling in Lebanese affairs as well. The seizure two weeks ago of the Iranian arms ship proves the Syrian-Hizbullah alliance. The < i>Francop freighter was to unload the weaponry in Syria, from where it would have been trucked to Lebanon. Diplomatically, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has much to gain, particularly now, from renewed talks with Syria. Abbas has given him the cold shoulder and around the world there is a growing sentiment that Israel, and particularly its right-wing prime minister, is anti-peace and not willing to make concessions. Talks with Syria would change this and possibly help Netanyahu establish the intimate relationship with US President Barack Obama he so yearns for. The ultimate question, though, comes down to the level of sincerity and motivations on both the Israeli side as well as in Syria. If the sides really want peace then it is possible. If it is all part of a larger PR ploy by both sides to make friends in the West, then the chances are that it will once again fail.